Videogame protagonists tend to be written as someone who stays the center of attention, an ego-avatar that allows a player to occupy the spotlight. This sort of lead character is someone who’s outgoing, impulsive, and not-entirely-kind, while assumed by those around him as charming or charismatic, even if the character has nothing really interesting about him at all. They’re principled when it counts, seen to be heroic by the fiction’s rigged customs, and good at what they do (which is usually fighting), so their emotional maturity is a nonissue. With this description a great many (mostly male) characters come to mind. This trend can be dismissed as bad writing or even videogame writing, but I think the causation is pretty natural. These are desirable traits for men, so they appear overwhelmingly in leading men.
Role playing games very often slip into these sort of heroic protagonists. It may be that these characters are perceived as neutral vehicles. Or it may simply be an uninterrogated tradition. Their frequency has resulted in subversions of their purpose, at least. Distant, jarring, and alienating in their forced bluster, quite a few modern instances take on a subversive or satirical role. Though this also means that it’s preferable to explore this one kind of personality from every facet imaginable, rather than attempting to write a more natural lead, or even diversifying things at all. By now I’ve been so blunt and obnoxious that somebody out there is starting to think of exceptions, or every exception, and yes. What I’m laboring to to say is that deviations from a heroic default are exceptional.
Wilfred, the Hero immediately sets into a lengthy, ruminating cutscene extrapolating how nervous Wilfred and his squire Kyr-Stan are at the end of their journey. But also, explicitly, Wilfred isn’t the leader people believe him to be. While he might be a good fighter, he’s also timid, reticent, anxious. Further dialogue throughout the game burns through a remorseful sensitivity. Wilfred frets about the war he’s fighting, not just out of genuine care for victims, seemingly just as pressing is a cowardice and fear for his life. Wilfred is not totally motivated out of goodness or morals, he’s reached some aspects of conviction by being flawed and selfish. Pacifism would benefit his fretting, unprepared self, as much as it would save lives.
Fear and reticence is certainly unglamorous. To a certain extent Wilfred, the Hero is a prolonged experience of embarrassment. A third of the way through, him and his squire fight the dragon’s witch. She gloats of derived pleasure from slaying heroes. Assuming the player leveled up offensively enough, the witch is defeated, but that is unimaginable and unacceptable to her, so in her last moments she discharges enough magic to fell everyone around her. Wilfred ends up waking up in a distant part of the cave. Displacement is a common trope in rpgs, but it manifests in Odyssey-esque shipwrecks, sorts of fated disasters. Heroes get attacked by monsters, or encounter a storm, or stumble into a whirlpool, and wake up in a kind stranger’s house far off course. Conflict that results in triumph over randomness, testing their ability, resilience, over the natural order, or whatever incarnation of god, as if to suppose some innate right-to-overcome adversity. For Wilfred, this displacement is tied to his inability instead. He wasn’t quick enough, wasn’t strong enough, and nearly lost his life.
Wilfred’s assumed incompetence is drilled in a second very long cutscene. An acquaintance, or rival—which I apologize for my tiredness as I don’t feel like playing through half the game to find his name so I’ll dub him Rude Dude—saved Wilfred and Kyr-Stan’s lives in their last moments. He dumps them in a resident refugee camp but not before chastising and admonishing Wilfred for being this deep in the most dangerous place in the world. Rude Dude says flat: quit Wilfred, you are weak, anxious, unsure, a liar, and a liability to their country. Continuing in this state is just putting you and Kyr-Stan’s lives in jeopardy, just go home, leave the job to him. From the phrasing and deftness of conversation there’s an implied history between Rude Dude and Wilfred; from Wilfred’s destitute reaction there has to be some truth to the accusations. It’s only Kry-Stan’s urging and optimism that keeps Wilfred going, same reassuring role he played in the intro. At this second occurrence it’s overwhelming: hero, you’re not a hero.
I still don’t understand the altogether insistence that Wilfred is a great fighter. It is contradicted: though they start at the end of their journey, both characters are level 1 and without skills. This isn’t necessarily an issue. I can assume that these levels are a relevant frame of reference, ignoring what they’ve accumulated to get to this point (or in other words a representation of the relative strength of ferocious monsters). Though I would’ve been more excited by a consistent presentation, an endgame implied by more than just narrative. What does fly in the face of Wilfred’s character is what a successful build looks like. Because of full heals after every battle and there being a stat bonus for whichever side deals more damage, it’s more useful to spend skill and stat points into pure offense. Wilfred pauses, contemplates, shows remorse and regret. In order to overcome a relatively steep challenge, my Wilfred struck savagely and fast, a style of no questions no answers fighting that didn’t seem appropriate for his character. Resources are scarce and the level cap is low, so it really is biased and uneven to role play as a more gentle Wilfred.
As a cold open, though, the intersecting complexity of Wilfred, the Hero’s skill system, stat choices, and very specific equipment, does create an anxious tension. I built even and loose characters my first attempt, which resulted in a full reset and a loss after two hours. Such specific and punishing systems are unquestionably obnoxious, but went toward a fear that each of my permanent character choices weren’t good enough. I could empathize with Wilfred’s terror of his own lack of personal growth. Busy, cluttered environments, filled with jutting ruins, false paths, strange fauna, also strongly contribute to a fear of the future. Someone else aptly described that the palette, being a prominent flat purple, a beige green, and a bright orange, feel out a lingering summer afternoon. A discomfort that had only just overstayed its welcome. Wilfred is scrunched up in illustrations of him, either looking like a tightened coil or a destitute soul. His UFO head is more flashy than protective, a put upon weakness in order to blot out the world.
Wilfred, the Hero is a character study. Each conscious detail establishes Wilfred’s point of view, instead of building a consistent fantasy world. I’m convinced of this effect even though it wasn’t intentional. The game is filled with gaps and feels unfinished, well, because it never was finished. This game is part one of a series that never came to be. Scars of that can be directly felt, blocked off areas imply powers and progression that never actually happen. This state of the unresolved, instead of feeling lackluster or empty, actually imbues the slice of story, forever a short story, with more trepidation and frustration. At the game’s climax, Wilfred and Kyr-Stan confront a dragon that was an inseparable comrade to that witch they fought before. She speaks, to the party’s surprise, seemingly explicitly to Wilfred.
Thou… thou art heroes, correct? I am Stregganira. I am servant to the black witch, Stregganona. Heroes, it is important that thou understand this. We art monsters. I ask that thou try to ken our situation. Heroes, we art children of the Demon-Dragon. Unlike thou, we have no souls. For us, there is no greater being to answer to. No redemption, no eternal consequences for our sins. Heroes, we art monsters. We art evil. But yet, we art alive! We are fearful, at times, at other times we are quite merry! Just like thou, heroes, we do have feelings.
Thou shalt kill me in a moment, of that I’m quite sure. I doth not ask thy mercy. I know what must happen. Though, that is not to say I shalt not respond with my most indecent violence! Heroes, do not forget that we art indeed alive. When thou kill us, bear it in thy hearts some small ounce of respect for the life that has passed. For when thou kill a monster, thou art yet killing. There is yet a life that has passed from the world.
This game came out eight years before Undertale (that is 2007). I’m just saying! Stregganira’s dialogue is putting it on a quarter too thick I’d say, but I still appreciate the deliberate use of Dragon Quest’s language while delivering Wilfred, the Hero’s thematic statement. All cascading trepidation leads up to this damnation, the unavoidable, broadly metatextual truthism, that heroes are another name for murderers. Not exactly a stunning reveal (but again do note this game came out before that Spec Ops: The Line, before Hotline Miami) however the aesthetic dedication to this theme actually gets the emotional content across the line, for once. A short story that starts in a middle and ends in the middle of an effectively implied setting is set to laser focus on such an affectation. Without any excess to this relationship, I don’t feel condescended to. I’m able to empathize with the impossible psychic pain this relationship inflicts on Wilfred and the monster faction he’s doomed to fight to the death.
internet archive page for wilfred, the hero